Keeping UNICEF’s Promise to Girls: 5 Key Actions for New UNICEF Director

Last week, Henrietta H. Fore opened the February session of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Board with a call to action: “We cannot achieve a sustainable tomorrow if we fail to serve the needs of children and young people today.”

As the new executive director of UNICEF, one of the largest and highest profile agencies of the United Nations (UN) system, Fore holds immense sway over policies and actions that will affect girls worldwide. She takes the helm at a time of global tumult marked by an international order under growing strain, threats to international solidarity and assistance, increasing attacks on human rights and gender equality, and new and ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises—all of which pose threats to the world’s children, particularly girls.

In this challenging environment, strong leadership of the UN organization charged with promoting the human rights and well-being of every child is particularly vital. Fore must take this opportunity to work toward a world where every girl is healthy, educated, and has the power to make her own decisions about her life and future.

As she steps into her role, the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) offers five priorities for Fore’s first term.

1. Invest in human rights-based approaches and prioritize the human rights and needs of girls.

Though the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely accepted human rights treaty—only the US has not ratified it—young people and children, especially girls, are too rarely respected as individuals with rights and authority over their own bodies and lives. Policies and programs that put girls’ human rights at the center, encourage an intersectional approach, and build girls’ capacity to make independent decisions throughout their lives (and especially as they transition to adulthood) are the most effective in meeting girls’ needs and ensuring that they can reach their full potential.

As recognized in UNICEF’s recently approved strategic plan, human rights should be the foundation for all of the organization’s work. Furthermore, the new plan’s guiding principle of accelerating action for the most marginalized children must be applied to adolescent girls who experience discrimination, bullying, and violence because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, poverty, migration status, or other status.

Fore should be a vocal champion for the human rights of all children, particularly girls and other marginalized children, and ensure UNICEF’s programs, reports, and public statements reflect its commitment to human rights-based approaches and non-discrimination.

2. Champion comprehensive sexuality education as a critical component of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The recently released international guidelines on sexuality education, endorsed by UNICEF and multiple other UN agencies, provide an important platform for ensuring that all children and adolescents have access to evidence-based, gender-responsive comprehensive sexuality education globally. As the new guidelines emphasize, comprehensive sexuality education not only equips children and adolescents with the information they need to understand their bodies and more safely navigate interpersonal and sexual relationships, it is a critical tool for challenging and changing gender norms, and equalizing power dynamics within relationships. By helping countries implement the guidelines, UNICEF will also help them achieve important parts of the SDG Agenda, including goals on education (Goal 4), gender equality (Goal 5), and health (Goal 3).

Fore should become a leading advocate for comprehensive sexuality education and make the case, publicly and privately, for its role in contributing to girls’ empowerment, healthy lives, and autonomy.

3. Invest in programs to combat child, early, and forced marriage, and support already married adolescents.

Though rates of child, early, and forced marriage have been declining globally over the past three decades, the sheer number of girls impacted by the practice is growing as populations increase. In addition, as UNICEF’s own data shows, hundreds of millions of girls are married already and in need of services and support to ensure their safety, protect their health, complete their education, and realize their rights. UNICEF has a vital and unique role to play in both preventing new marriages and supporting already married girls.

This work must be holistic in nature, tailored to specific contexts, and tackle the root causes of child, early and forced marriage, which UNICEF has correctly identified as gender inequality. UNICEF should prioritize work with local civil society organizations, which have earned the trust of their communities and understand the drivers of the practice, as well as the needs of married adolescents.

Fore should ensure that ending child, early, and forced marriage remains core to UNICEF’s work and increase attention to and funding of programming for already married adolescents.

4. Continue and enhance multisectoral partnerships, including with girls themselves.

While ending child, early, and forced marriage and promoting girls’ human rights is critical to UNICEF’s mission, UNICEF alone cannot achieve these goals. Programs like those between UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to end child, early, and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation provide clear examples of how to bring together multiple actors to increase attention and action on seemingly intractable social issues. Similarly, partnerships with local civil society organizations and girls themselves to develop and implement holistic, rights-based programs are far more effective than those implemented by international organizations alone. These types of holistic programs, which ensure the expertise of multiple sectors and actors are brought to bear, will be critical to achieving the SDGs.

Fore should commit to developing strong alliances with civil society groups, especially youth- and girl-led organizations, across the UN system, including with other agencies, and with Member States.

5. Champion the UN system and its values.

As President Trump and his administration question the importance of multilateralism, thwart the norms of diplomacy, and threaten to gut development assistance and UN funding, champions for multilateralism, diplomacy, development assistance, and humanitarian aid must proudly and forcefully stand up and speak out.

As an American, former Administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and Director of United States Foreign Assistance, Fore has a unique understanding of the importance of multilateralism and the role of international development assistance in helping to improve the lives of children around the world. As such, Fore has a responsibility to speak up on the importance of the UN, and to hold the US and other governments accountable to their commitments.

Fore should be a champion not just for children or UNICEF, but the UN system as a whole.

For girls around the globe, a UNICEF Executive Director who prioritizes their needs, health, rights, and autonomy is vital. Fore must step into her role as a leader for girls and ensure that appropriate resources are allocated to UNICEF as a whole and programs that work for girls.

We call on Fore to be a champion for girls—in all their diversity, through all of their challenges, and for the promise that each girl’s life holds.

Photo: Violaine Martin / UN Geneva

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